Holy Week and the meaning of the cross
So, what happened after that amazing reception that Jesus experienced on the last Sunday as he entered the city of Jerusalem. The people were absolutely delighted with him… loved him… wanted more of him. But just a few days later – the mood was changing. And as the week continues, everything goes from glorious to gloomy.
Darkness Descends, approx 4x12"
graphite and colored pencil on mylar
Later, on that Palm Sunday, the Bible tells us that Jesus went to the temple and looked at it carefully. Then, because it was late in the day, he leaves. He apparently spends the night with his friends (probably Lazarus and his sisters) in a nearby town.
Monday. But early the next morning, he makes his way back to Jerusalem with his disciples. There isn’t any moment, now, that Jesus isn’t teaching and talking with his disciples. They don’t really get it yet (how could they?), but he is preparing them for what he knows is coming. This is the day that Jesus goes into the temple in Jerusalem and totally disrupts business as usual. In fact, that is just what was going on … business. Price gouging and deal making … and all of it was exactly what the temple was not meant to be. This was a house of prayer and connection with God; the place that the Jewish people understood that God had chosen to live among them. So, Jesus disrupts that. In fact, he confronts the business people and literally cleans out the temple from this kind of commercialism. It was offensive to God. The leaders of the temple were completely offended by Jesus. They are openly trying to find a way to get rid of him!
Tuesday. Jesus returns to the temple! Bold! Here, those offended by his actions of the day before angrily confront him, but he doesn’t apologize or back down. Though they can’t or won’t see it, he has actually restored to the temple the purposes God planned for it. But, Jesus has disrupted their comfortable and perhaps quite profitable lives. They continue to plot and plan for his demise. That evening, back in the small town of Bethany, Jesus is has dinner with a man who had once had leprosy. During this dinner, a woman enters and using a jar of perfume that cost nearly a year’s salary of that day, she breaks the seal and pours it over Jesus’ head to the dismay of some of those present. But, Jesus accepts her gift – a costly one – and once again tells his followers that he will soon die.
Wednesday. Scripture records nothing that day. From what we know of Jesus, though, we can imagine he was spending time that day with his Father in Heaven in prayer – preparing himself for the days ahead. This may well be the day that his own disciple, Judas, makes plans to sell Jesus out… betray him and hand him over to those who are planning to get rid of him.
Thursday. This is the day the Passover meal would be eaten. Jesus and his followers prepare to celebrate it in Jerusalem. As everyone arrives for the meal, Jesus does something unheard of – profound – he goes to each of them and taking a servant’s role, he washes their feet. That was customary … but not by the host! A servant would do that. Of course, there is a symbolism here, Jesus – the creator of all things, humbling himself to the role of a servant.
And at the dinner, he has more symbolism to share. As he breaks bread to pass around – he symbolizes it as his body. His body…. Broken. For us. The meaning was deep and very difficult for those who did not yet know the plan that was unfolding. And the wine he passes to them is symbolized as his blood. Poured out for us as well. All of this has meaning at Passover, which was an ancient rite for the Jewish people…the remembrance of Moses’ day when a lamb’s blood was the covering for God’s people during Egypt’s judgment. On this Passover, it would be the perfect blood of God’s own Son that would cover people during the world’s judgment.
After dinner that night – during which time, Judas leaves the group – Jesus takes his friends from the house to a garden. It is clear that he is agitated and under a great deal of stress. He goes there to pray and asks his friends to pray with him. While they are in the garden (his friends have fallen asleep), Judas arrives with a gang of people who have swords and weapons – and Judas walks boldly to him and kisses him on the cheek. This is the prearranged sign that the mob is looking for. By force they will take him. But force isn’t needed. Peter, one of Jesus’ friends, angrily takes out his sword and slashes at them, lopping off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus merely touches the wound and it is instantly healed.
Before things escalate further, Jesus speaks –This is all part of God’s plan! I could ask my Father for 10,000 angels to protect us and they would be here in an instant. But, that is not what I am here for... I am here to fulfill the scripture already written.
And suddenly, even his closest friends abandon him in fear. He is arrested and taken captive; willingly, in spite of knowing the horrifying day ahead.
Friday. His trials and beatings begin. All of which were fabricated and illegal and tremendously barbaric. The Roman officials could find no wrong-doing – but eventually, Pilate caves in and hands Jesus over to be crucified at the Jewish leaders’ insistence. He is mocked, and he remains silent. He is taunted and laughingly given a purple robe and a crown made of long and sharp thorns, he says nothing. He is beaten by professional Roman soldiers who carry out this kind of sentence for a living. 39 lashes. Many people died from this… and the 40th lash was said to be the lash of death. It was disfiguring and agonizing. He had not eaten since the night before or had anything to drink. And finally, after the beatings, he is made to carry the cross from the center of Jerusalem up the hill where the crucifixion would occur. It wasn’t like no one was watching, either – there was a crowd. Many people in town for Passover – and it wasn’t like Jesus was some unknown. He’d been the talk of the country for some time. Now, everyone is watching – watching as he is humiliated and as he staggers under the weight of the cross and the wounds of his 39 lashes. As he stumbles, a man named Simon is pulled from the onlookers and conscripted to carry the cross.
On the hilltop, Jesus is nailed to the cross and raised up – just as scripture says it will happen. He refuses the sedative that is often given and hangs without complaint next to common criminals. At about noontime – the sky is suddenly shrouded in a brooding blackness. In fact, all the land is darkened, at noon – for 3 hours. At 3 pm, Jesus calls out – Why, my God, have you turned your back on me? And then, he announces – It is finished. And at that moment he gives up his life – it is not taken from him, but he gives it up. And he breathes his last breath.
Standing there, a Roman soldier – no affiliation with Jewish tradition or teaching or understanding – says in reaction to all he has witnessed, This truly was the Son of God.
The early death of Jesus is reported to Pilate – and he asks for confirmation that Jesus is in fact dead. Confirmation is made by the executioners, and Jesus body is taken from the cross, wrapped and placed in a new tomb. A huge stone is rolled in front of it – and that’s that. But, the women in Jesus life (mother, relatives, friends) watch and make plans to go and embalm him after Passover is complete.
Imagine the horror of all they had seen. Each of his followers must have been overcome – all their thoughts, expectations, all they had poured their life into for the past years was suddenly ended and they had no real answers.
Nor does this make sense without the understanding of who God is – an Almighty, all-knowing, personal God who is the very definition of love. He is also the very definition of a warrior. So filled with love for the people he created – person by person - and so full of anger at that which has captivated and separated us from himself – and so very aware that we cannot make our way back to him – God chooses to pay the price himself. He rectifies the wrong, provides the ransom, becomes the sacrifice needed to restore his family. The mystery is that he steps into time and his own creation to accomplish all this for me … and for you.
It would be meaningless and horrifying if that ended the story. It is not a suitable ending for an all powerful, all loving, redeeming God. And we don’t yet see what he’s accomplished as a warrior…not yet. But more is to come – in just a few days.
(Read this account for yourself – at the end of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the Bible.)